Wednesday, August 26, 2009
San Diego Unified School Superintendent Terry Grier discusses why he's planning to take a new job in Houston after only two years in San Diego.
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH (Host): I'm Maureen Cavanaugh. You're listening to These Days on KPBS. News that San Diego Unified School Superintendent Terry Grier has been selected as school chief in Houston has sent shockwaves through the district. Although Grier has not formally accepted the position, he told principals yesterday he will accept if Houston offers him a good contract. San Diego Unified has already had to deal with losing millions in state funding this year. And now it's set to start the school year without a leader. Behind the initial disruption of Terry Grier's departure – that Terry Grier's departure will cause, that is, lies the question of why San Diego's largest school district seems unable to hold on to a superintendent for any length of time. Are school board politics interfering with the proper administration of the district? And what will losing Terry Grier mean to the policies he has so recently set into motion? I'd like to welcome Terry Grier to These Days, and good morning, sir.
TERRY GRIER (Superintendent, San Diego Unified School District): How are you?
CAVANAUGH: I'm doing fine. Any yourself?
GRIER: I'm good. It's good to hear your voice.
CAVANAUGH: Okay. We want to invite our listeners to join the conversation. If you have a question for school superintendent Terry Grier or if you have a comment about his pending move to Houston, give us a call. The number is 1-888-895-5727, that's 1-888-895-KPBS. Well, Superintendent Grier, what decision have you made about becoming the new superintendent for Houston school district?
GRIER: Well, as I've told many people, I've not been offered a contract to become the superintendent of the Houston Independent School District. I have had a number of very good, interesting dialogues with the board there and they've named me as their sole finalist for that position. Now in that state, there's a 21-day wait period before they actually can sign a contract with anyone. So right now, it's more dialogue and conversation and attorneys working together to see whether or not we can cut – put together a contract that's agreeable to both sides.
CAVANAUGH: Well, without telling us exactly how much you'll be paid, what constitutes a good contract for you?
GRIER: Well, to me, it's – I believe this is going to sound silly, I guess, and people won't believe it but it's not about the money. I make enough money here in San Diego. Frankly, it's about the opportunity to lead, it's about the opportunity to be innovative and creative and out of the box. Yes, an opportunity to focus on children's issues versus spending 99% of your time working on and around adult issues. And I think that's something that – I know that's something that excites me. You go online to the Houston Independent School District and the board is very clear in its beliefs and values and their belief and value statements have been ratified over a number of years by different boards. They're very consistent in their mission and their beliefs. And if you look at their goals, it's fascinating, they have five or six goals listed and the first goal is goal one, top priority student academic performance. And then they have a variety of other goals but they all come back to that top goal. Now, that's exciting to me.
CAVANAUGH: Well, in that answer, Terry Grier, you've delineated a number of reasons that you might have wanted to leave San Diego. So let me ask you then a little bit more clearly, you mentioned that there's a lot of discussion, well, in Houston there isn't as much discussion about adults as there is here. And you have been quoted as saying you've never been in a district where there's been so much discussion about adults and not about children. What do you mean by that?
GRIER: Well, we have 60,000 children in San Diego who read below the level of proficiency. They're not proficient, 60,000 students. And yet, we don't have a uniform literacy program in the district and we don't seem to have a desire to do that. We don't want to anger parents. I keep coming – I've said this every day I've been here, it's as if I'm still living with the Alan Bersin ghost that were here (sic) years ago and so we don't want to focus on literacy because, well, Alan Bersin focused on literacy. And I think that, you know, while I've met Alan Bersin and gotten to know him a bit, a lot of what he wanted to do was not bad, it may have been the way it was done. But you can't stop and not want to do anything that's been tried before and has not worked. When 60,000 children can't read at a proficient level, you have to be willing to embrace literacy as one of your prime goals and objectives.
CAVANAUGH: Now you also mentioned that the Houston school board is consistent. The school board that you're dealing with now at San Diego Unified is not the same school board that hired you. Did you find that a problem?
GRIER: Well, boards have different philosophies and this board certainly has a different philosophical approach than the board that hired me. I've worked – I think I've worked very to try to modify leadership style, and I've always been a superintendent who's worked at the pleasure of the board. I'm not going to be critical of this board nor am I going to be critical of anyone else. So the board – I think boards in large, urban districts have to work real hard to understand their role and they also have to come to grips with whether or not, here in San Diego, that even – the board even wants a superintendent or wants a superintendent in the traditional st – under – in the traditional mode. I think that's something this board has to decide.
CAVANAUGH: We are taking your calls for school superintendent Terry Grier at 1-888-895-5727. Right now, one school board member is on the line, John Lee Evans is on the line, and welcome to These Days.
JOHN LEE EVANS (School Board Member, San Diego Unified School District): Thank you very much, Maureen.
CAVANAUGH: I'm wondering, you're listening to what Terry Grier is saying and you've heard from him – you heard from him Monday, I believe…
EVANS: Sure, umm-hmm.
CAVANAUGH: …in a meeting. What is your reaction to the idea that Terry Grier looks like he's on his way out?
EVANS: Well, first of all, and I – I was obviously very surprised. I was away on vacation and came back and, like everybody else, heard through the media, on the radio, that Dr. Grier had an opportunity in Houston. And the reality is in the employment world is that people certainly have opportunities to look at other employment opportunities and he has – he has found something that he really likes there. I just want to kind of clear up some kind of misinformation and speculation that people are doing about the superintendent and the board of education. I'm one of the two new members who's on the board so, I mean, I certainly had an influence on how things have gone during this last year. A lot of times it's been characterized as labor friendly as opposed to being characterized as bureaucrat unfriendly because one of the things we've done is seriously reduce the central office administration. We had huge issues this year with the budget and if the superintendent and the board had not been working closely together, we would not have accomplished that. This board is very interested in preserving what was important and cutting out what we didn't need, and Terry really worked hard with us to accomplish that so I certainly congratulate him on that a lot.
CAVANAUGH: Well, let me…
CAVANAUGH: …just interrupt you if I may and, Dr. Grier and John Lee Evans, there must be some problem or else you wouldn't want to be leaving. Isn't that true, Superintendent Grier?
GRIER: Well, I think, again, you have to balance the challenges that you have here against the opportunities that you have to lead, you know, one of the nation's largest school districts and you, you know, these are hard decisions that you have to make. We – I don't think we're finished by any stretch of anyone's imaginations (sic) with the severe budget cuts that we have here in California. I think one of the huge issues for educators across this state is whether or not our state elected officials have the political will to try to modify how we raise revenue in this state because this state is very close to being bankrupt. I don't – I really worry about what's going to happen to the State of California next year.
CAVANAUGH: I wonder, it sounds to me, I don't mean to put words in your mouth, Terry Grier, but it sounds to me that this position that you accepted in San Diego less than a year and a half ago was not exactly what you thought it was going to be.
GRIER: Well, I don't think anyone had the ability to look into that crystal ball and see the type of financial shortfalls the State of California would have or to see the total collapse of the housing market around the country and how that would impact this particular state. So, no, I don't think anyone saw that, and I can tell you I've spent few days in San Diego where we were not in, somehow, some way, working to balance the budget. I'll build on something Dr. Evans said. We had to eliminate – we have eliminated 350 central office positions since I've been here but we eliminated 170 of those before the new board took office and that was, quite frankly, something that we – I shared with the board that hired me and with this board, was the philosophical desire to, quote, right size the central office. We had too many people here. We were top heavy. We had too many – you know, it was a huge bureaucracy, and we have really whittled down our staff now and I can already see a cultural and philosophical shift towards being more service centered, really providing quality support to the schools versus being a central office that has had a reputation of being more controlling, more directing, more telling. I hope that's something that will continue in years to come whether I'm here or not.
CAVANAUGH: Well, I want to direct another question to John Lee Evans, if I may. And there has – Dr. Grier has been quoted as saying that he's been micromanaged by the board. Do you know of any reason why he might feel that way?
EVANS: No, I don't think that micromanaging is the issue. I mean, when I came on the board and Richard Barrera, both of us have full time outside employment so there certainly isn't even time to micromanage what's going on in the district. I mean, people are trying to look for, you know, what is the problem and I think the California budget issue is a huge problem. But here – Just let me give an example of an area of great collaboration. We – With this budget crisis, what we actually did in some ways was to increase the budget to the school sites. And we wanted our priority to be for the teachers, the supplies, the things that were going right on site with the kids. And Dr. Grier was pretty bold in really asserting that in the midst of this crisis that we fix the way that we were budgeting at the school sites. And the result of that was we had to cut a lot at the top and come up with a lot of very innovative budget things in terms of lunch programs, transportation and so forth. But I think those are areas of great collaboration and one of the things is, the board has the responsibility for the budget and the budget says a lot about what our priorities are and we've been able to work together pretty well on that.
CAVANAUGH: I really have to thank you for calling in. Thank you so much, John Lee Evans. He's a member of the school board. And my guest is San Diego Unified School District Superintendent Terry Grier, who's been selected to head the schools in Houston and he's still trying to work that out to see if he is actually leaving San Diego. And, Terry, I wanted to ask you, in describing why you might be thinking of this position in Houston, you cited that you'd be working with a consistent school board whose main priority is to increase student achievement. So are you actually saying that is not what you're working with here?
GRIER: Again, I – my position here is I'm not going to – I'm not going to get into an on-air, live, public debate about differences of philosophy and opinion with the board. I'm a superintendent that wants to be held accountable. I'm not afraid of goals and objectives. I very much am accustomed to working in an organization where the board establishes goals for the superintendent and then the superintendent cascades that down through the organization to help the organization focus. I very much would love to have goals that would put focus on very key issues that are important to this community. Dropout rate, graduation rate, closing the achievement gap, increasing the percentage of children reading on grade level, decreasing the numbers of children that are misplaced into special education programs, etcetera, very specific goals with reasonable targets that you work towards meeting, that is philosophically something that I think our board is really trying to come together around and that's something that I very much – I've asked the board to do here, is to give me goals, set those goals, and hold me accountable for achieving them. Let me cascade that down to members of my cast – my staff and on into the schools through our principals, etcetera. That's part of the culture in Houston, and there's a huge component of your salary there that's based on that type of pay, and I like it. If you produce results, you get paid. If you don't, you don't. And that's just a – Maybe that's a small philosophical difference but it is a difference. And, at the same time, you know, if I’m here and the board here decides not to operate in that manner, I respect that as well.
CAVANAUGH: Let me take a phone call. Chaiko (sp) is in Paradise Hills, and welcome to These Days.
CHAIKO (Caller, Paradise Hills): Thank you very much.
CAVANAUGH: Yes, how can we help you?
CHAIKO: Yes, Dr. Grier, I'm 52 years of experience classroom teacher on three continents and then at Point Loma High School in this district. I have been concerned about the emphasis on credit recovery to the detriment of what you're talking about here as literacy. I was at the White House forum, didn't get a chance to talk with you there. But I see the direction that our schools have been going has – is leading us to something that in the old days was called warehousing where we are so concerned about credit recovery and sort of checking off the statistics on how many people do this and how many people pass this that we miss the youngsters themselves and what they do not have in terms of content. What do they – What are they reading? Literacy is not enough unless we say what the youngsters should know about themselves and others. We so narrowly select what youngsters can read in order to teach them how to pass tests.
CAVANAUGH: Chaiko, thank you for that comment and I'd like you to respond, Terry Grier.
GRIER: Yeah, I think the real key is whether or not we can teach children how to read independently of – particularly by the end of third and fourth grade. And in our society and in the world, if you can't read, you cannot succeed, it's just that simple. And what kids read, as I'm sure you can debate on both sides of that issue; the real issue is whether they can read. And, you know, we want kids to be able to read well and to read independently and to do so at an early age. And without that, you're not going to be able to succeed. And what happens, many times because these children do not read well, they get into high school and they fail most of their courses. And we implemented a very innovative, out of the box program in all of our high schools last year where we put a computer lab and a graduation coach in that lab and high school students that are seniors that have taken courses and failed them, first it's having to sit there a whole year, an entire year, take the same course again, same book again, same teacher again, be taught the same things the same way and possibly—and more likely—fail. We allow these kids to go online, take a computer program course that has been accredited by the Northwest Association of Colleges and Schools. It's very academically rigorous. And we let those kids retake that course online, and last year in San Diego Unified we had students that recovered 4350 courses that they had failed before. Now because they were working on a computer and they didn't have to sit in class just an hour, they could work on that in the afternoons, on the weekends, in the evenings, they could work on it during one of their periods during the day. In 81 days, the majority of those kids had recovered that lost credit and taken tests to indicate they had mastered the necessary objectives with a B average. And so we're very proud of that. We think it – we know it's going to curb a dropout rate that's unacceptably high in this district. We know that it will improve a graduation rate that's unacceptably low. We can't keep doing the same things in San Diego Unified the same way year after year after year with a student population that is increasingly becoming more diverse and more socio-economically challenged. We have to work together to get out of the box. We have to understand that one size school does not fit all of our children. And I don't have all the answers. I can just tell you, 60,000 of our children are not proficient in reading. And whatever we need to do to correct that, we need to get busy.
CAVANAUGH: Well, Dr. Grier, it sounds like, however, we'll be working together without you, and I wonder what you have to say to the parents and the teachers and the students and the community members who are disappointed that you might leave so soon?
GRIER: Well, as say – I've said earlier in the show, no one has offered me a contract and that has yet to occur. And I think any leader has to assess where they are and the potential that that – that's in front of them and the offers. What we have tried to do here is we've put together one of the very best central office leadership teams that you can find in the country. I mean, many of them have no rivals. They're at the top of their game educationally. And we have all of our schools staffed, all of our teachers employed, all of our principals in place. We have started down the road of looking at test data and setting objectives for the coming year. We are ready to open school. And, you know, if this works out in Houston, we have people here on staff that can continue the direction we're going in and continue to work at the board's pleasure. Don't underestimate the value and importance of the board in setting the direction of this district. If that direction is not the direction that the public wants, that's a nice thing about democracy. Our board was elected by our public and our public, I think, has a lot of confidence in the people they appointed. So the ingredients are in place here. If it doesn't work out in Houston, I'm in a position, I think, I've tried really hard, and I'm going to continue to work hard. I'm a consensus builder, don't want to burn bridges. I would want to continue to work and continue to provide leadership. I also want to be clear, I was recruited for that job and said no numerous times before I finally agreed to set down (sic) and interview with the board. Now this is not something that I was looking to do. I've not been out applying for other jobs because I'm dissatisfied with the one I have.
CAVANAUGH: Now as I understand it, the Houston school term has already started?
CAVANAUGH: So they kind of want you yesterday, right?
GRIER: Well, again, we've not really started talking about when you would start or stop or start day or stop here. That is, right now, kind of premature. We just are trying to work through and walk a very delicate line, to be frank with you, and I understand the timing is not good and if I could've changed that, I probably would have.
CAVANAUGH: And when is it that – Do you have a timeframe as to when you're going to be making this decision finally?
GRIER: Again, in that state, they cannot offer a contract until 21 days has expired and I think that's sometime in mid-September.
CAVANAUGH: And I wonder, briefly, if you would, Dr. Grier, what have you learned about running a district like San Diego's that you may take with you to your next job?
GRIER: You know, a lot of these big urban districts are so similar and a lot of it has to do with working through past experiences that the district has had. You know, we still – we are spending way too much time in San Diego living in our rear view mirror. It's good to have a historical perspective. You don't want to – you certainly do not want to make previous mistakes but hope is tomorrow and the future. Hope is not in yesteryears. And we've got to get past, as a community, as our teacher organization, they've got to get over Alan Bersin at some point in time. And I like Alan and I've met – as I said earlier in the program, I've met him and many of his reform agenda ideas were spot on. I wasn't here. I can't talk to the implementation. But you cannot hide behind what happened yesterday as a reason not to work together to improve education for children. And we spend way too much time in this school district talking about adults and what we need to be doing for adults. And our staff is very important. I've seen some of the very best teaching and teachers in this – that I've ever seen in education in this school district. I know we've got some of the most dedicated support staff and great principals. It's a good team here. But we are so bogged down in yesterday and we are so bogged down in adult issues that we do not spend enough time focused on what we can do, collectively as a community, to help make sure that our children are prepared for the next century and prepared for meaningful work when they finish school.
CAVANAUGH: Terry Grier, we have to leave it there. I'm so sorry. We are just…
CAVANAUGH: …fresh out of time.
GRIER: I could talk with you all day. Thank you so much for having me, guys.
CAVANAUGH: Thank you. Thank you so much. I've been speaking with San Diego Unified School Superintendent Terry Grier. And if we didn't get a chance to take your phone call, you can post your comments online at KPBS.org/TheseDays. Stay with us for hour two of These Days here on KPBS.